The people of Israel have once again affirmed their democratic birthright by voting for their preferred political leadership in open and competitive elections. Israel is an island of democracy in the Middle East, and the decision of its electorate deserves respect from the international community.
Those who seek to portray the election of Ariel Sharon for prime minister as a blow to the peace process oversimplify the state of Israeli politics and fundamentally misconstrue what has already become of the Oslo accords.
Israel's political spectrum is much more nuanced than many outside observers acknowledge. To a very large extent, the policy differences between the Labor and Likud parties have been blurred in recent years. The debate between Sharon's Likud Party and Ehud Barak's Labor Party is not about the need for peace but about the nature of it. This election does not represent a choice between peace and war or between one candidate who favors negotiation and one who rejects it. The fact is that Barak and Sharon agree upon many broad goals, but they differ on the modalities in which national objectives can be achieved. Such distinctions in approach are perfectly understandable and indeed desirable, for any democracy that fosters a healthy debate between its major political parties.
The Israeli electorate's decision was not about peace, but about security. Israelis want their children to ride the school bus without the bus exploding. They want to go shopping and visit friends without fearing for their lives.
In casting a preference for Sharon, the Israeli people have not rejected the principles behind the Oslo accords. Notwithstanding Palestinian propaganda, Sharon's election will not be the cause of a breakdown in the peace process. Palestinian inflammatory incitement, violence and suicide bombings have already abrogated the very meaning and essence of Oslo.
As the past seven years of the peace process have unfolded, it seemed steadily likely that a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would be based on a two-state solution for two peoples. Yet by rejecting proposals which granted the Palestinians an independent state on almost all of the disputed territories (including parts of Jerusalem), and by insisting that millions of Palestinians be allowed to move into Israel (thereby effectively propelling Israel to commit national suicide), it is the Palestinian Authority that has turned its back on Oslo's two-state ideal.
The Palestinian Authority has demonstrated that, at least at this moment in time, it is simply incapable of internalizing the permanence of the State of Israel in the Middle East. Palestinian leadership has proved itself either unwilling or unable to educate its people, especially children, about the necessity of peace. In agreement after agreement, the Palestinians resolved never again to use violence as a bargaining tool. All disagreements were to be resolved through negotiation. Obviously, this has not occurred.
The Palestinian eruption of violence, not the election of Sharon, produced an inevitable stalemate in the Oslo process. Attempts to portray the situation otherwise simply misrepresent a painful reality.
In response to the Palestinians forsaking the road of peaceful settlement, Israel has no choice but to seek new and creative strategies for the future. In the absence of a final peace agreement, long-term solutions must be found that simultaneously strive to prevent bloodshed and ease tensions in the region.
Israel will never depart from the path of peace. This has been true for governments led by the Labor Party and for Likud-led administrations as well.
Consider the records of the previous Likud leaders:
Prime Minister Menahem Begin signed the most important peace treaty in Israeli history (with Egypt). He and Defense Minister Sharon proceeded to do what was considered politically unthinkable and dismantled Israeli settlements. The Likud-led government then returned the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian control.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir defied many critics' expectations by exhibiting remarkable restraint and sound judgment during the Gulf War. He chose not to retaliate against Iraq's unprovoked missile attacks on Israel and subsequently led Israel to the Madrid Conference, which paved the way for the first direct negotiations between Israel and many of its adversaries.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would also again break the conventional wisdom of the time by signing the Hebron and Wye River Accords with the Palestinians, thereby transferring large sections of the historic land of Israel to Palestinian control. This marked a political milestone that brought large segments of Israel's more conservative citizenry to internalize the inevitability of painful territorial concessions.
Because all these former Likud prime ministers broke taboos and transcended the stereotypes assigned them by others, it would be unwise and unwarranted to prejudge the election of Sharon.
Sharon was elected to devise sensible approaches to protect Israeli citizens against the violence and terror that has been thrust upon them.
He will proceed with the mandate conferred upon him by the people. He deserves a chance to initiate an open and honest dialogue with the people of Israel, with the Palestinians, and with Israel's friends and allies throughout the world.
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